Saturday, December 3, 2011

Grilled cheese and tomato soup.

This Saturday morning began much like any other. I brewed a cup of hot water with ginger and star anise, put a record on the turntable (it was Nat "King" Cole), and set about plunging my hands into the spring coil booby-trap couch cushions for lost change to hold the dog and me over with food til payday.

A low yield venture, today. But no worries.

Grilled Cheese

1 crust-trimmed piece of thick-sliced sandwich bread, buttered.
Generous smears of butter and Tallegio
Mildly toasted cumin seeds and black mustard seeds.

Blanket toast with soft butter and cheese, place under broiler til congregated and brown. Garnish with toasted cumin seeds and good olive oil.

Tomato Soup

(pan roast and render the following in a saute pan)

2 inches of grated ginger
3 cloves of garlic
1 pinch of cumin
1 narrow pinch of coriander
1 handful of crushed almonds


1/3 pebbled cauliflower head with finely chopped stems
1 well-rinsed and finely chopped leek
1 beefsteak tomato, diced (juice kept).
1 segmented and chopped Valencia orange (juice kept)
1/4 c. roasted lime juice
1/2 c cooked brown lentils
1 inch of grated ginger
1 generous grasp of cilantro, chopped.
1/2 tsp pale sesame seeds
1/2 tsp black sesame seeds

Then add...

A splash of good olive oil.
2 tbsp rendered light brown sugar or agave
1 judicious splash of pickle juice salt and pepper
to complete

Chill, allowing to macerate as one.

Season to taste, finally.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Their river of time.

I see far too little of my Mom and Dad. Between this city and their country; and the yoke of work and the oddity that stands between generations it just doesn't happen as often as I'd like. It's such a pity because besides the blood tie they're also very good friends--an actuality upon which I rely and shame with forgetfulness.

Finally, however, fortune prevailed and my Mom and her childhood best friend came to Pittsburgh. Eric, threw open the doors to Brillobox, permitting the ladies a private late morning luncheon. I knew about the prospect well enough in advance--well enough to scrawl about seven or eight different, highly ambitious and Proustianly unrealistic menus in the Moleskine. Here are a few notions that made it to the plate.

Salad of Chioga and golden beets with Shropshire Blue and Walnuts

Wild Maitake, French Lentil and Leek Soup

Croque Madame "Petit Four"

Cavatelli in Kale and Chili Pesto with Fontina Val D'aosta.

I need to do this for my Dad soon.

Friday, March 18, 2011


This Sunday March 20th, 2011 6pm $8

Please join us this weekend at Brillobox for a special Sunday Vegetarian Dinner. All proceeds will be donated to the American Red Cross to assist in their ongoing relief effort for the people of Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami catastrophe. Come out for a plate, have a pint. It's the easiest way to make a difference where it is most needed. We hope to see you there.



Miso and sweet potato bisque with young celery gremolata and sesame crouton


Early spring garden green and root salad with udon noodles, citrus-fried tofu and shredded leeks with nanban reduction.

Links to donate/volunteer:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Lettuce stew.

It's fascinating to observe how recipe authors name their dishes. Some are more succinct than others; some verbose, rattling on as if the impact of the dish was achieved in its name alone.

There's poetic grace in being selective, even cryptic.

This dish owes its heritage to Portugal--a basic hard green and sausage stew, thickened with potatoes. But the potatoes in the pantry were past their prime and my hangover was disorienting enough that in haste and poor apprehension I grabbed a head of green lettuce instead of escarole.

Years ago I remember watching one of the proprietors of a restaurant where I worked tear leaves of wilted lettuce into a vegetable soup, wondering, "what is that dogshit crazy sexual predator doing?" But it turns out the soft greens can work quite well in soups. What they lack in spine they make up for in silkiness. So having given over to the risk of making a lettuce stew I upped the ante by tearing up a bit of stale bread and cooking it into the liquid. Silkier still.

Not the kind of modifier you expect to see tacked onto a Portuguese sausage stew, but that's the charm. If its your thing--as it is mine, you can ratchet up the contradiction even further with a sharp belt from hot chilies.

Lettuce stew

1 lb. hot Italian sausage
2 chicken backs (a few thighs, legs or wings would work alternately)
1 tbsp smoked hot paprika
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 guajillo chilies, rehydrated, chopped finely
1 medium red onion, finely diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 medium carrot, julienned
1 1/2 c cooked white kidney beans
1 head green lettuce, washed and chopped
1-2 tbsp flour
1 heel of stake bread
2 quarts roasted vegetable stock (or water)

In a dutch oven brown the sausage and chicken on all sides, then set aside. Add the aromatics (the next six ingredients) and cook til well colored. Add the beans and lettuce, cooking til lettuce wilts--it'll only take a moment.

Chop the sausage into bite size pieces--it will still be raw at the center, and add to the pot, followed by the chicken parts. Cover with flour and stir together over medium high heat.

Add stock and bread, then bring to a simmer. Adjust chili heat as you season. I served it with toast smeared with Saint Agur blue. One more spiky note to gild the contrast.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dreamland--part two.

Pigeons take to tables for beignet crumbs and powdered sugar residue
at Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter.

The West Bank on the far side of the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans looks haunted at night. The aerial view from the Huey P. Long bridge is reminiscent of the photos of Gregory Crewdson--luminescent flashes of a world that can never entirely go to sleep. It looks industrial, commercial and in the insolence of daylight it must certainly be a plain sight--if it exists at all.

In our feverish discussions of how and where to cram in a modest eight meals a day on my first visit Brooke insisted that the Vietnamese community in the West Bank made food as essential to the New Orleans experience as a po' boy at Domilise's.

On the second night of my stay we crossed the bridge and descended into that dreamland, to Nine Roses, a roomy Vietnamese place with a stiff facade and copious parking lot suggestive of an unclaimed mattress emporium. When making those preliminary assessments of non-western eateries thinking gets counter-intuitive. Does it look like the kind of place you could buy a coffee table? That's a good thing. Drops ceilings, filmy laminated menus? An abandoned tricycle in the corner by an open coloring book? Yes? You're in the right spot.

The first sight you catch upon entering Nine Roses is a stately aquarium whose blue lamp seems to be responsible for lighting the entire dining room, and whose sole inhabitant, a blood-colored tropical fish glides through his home space in a sleepy almost emblematic motion. So much of what Nine Roses does is familiar fare. We ate spring rolls, pho and a plate of chili-singed calamari with brown rice. There is an inspirational kind of achievement in places like Nine Roses--the modesty with which balance of flavor, coordination of spices and striking sensory impact work. We ate and talked about our families and the places we'd been over the years, taking in each plate with subconscious warmth. Some food draws attention to its own magnificence, it thinks it's art. It's cook thinks he's an artist. Great food however is subliminal. And its magnificence leaves the poetic mark in afterthought. Nine Roses makes food in the mold of the latter.

Across the Huey P. Long in Uptown again we spent a bit of time ostensibly walking off the Vietnamese feast we'd just eaten. Magazine Street is home to a good number of inviting windows and open doors--bars, bistros, pizzerias, ice cream parlors. The night air is pink and violet with their lights. One such place, Coquette, is the home of a plate Brooke claims as the definitive sweet in New Orleans. Over a cocktail at the bar we discovered that their lauded chocolate pot de creme and beignets was no longer a selection on the standard menu and could only be had as part of a six course prix fixe menu. A sympathetic bartender disappeared into the kitchen and in short order returned to inform us that an exception was being made. With some drink chatter and a comforting lag since our last gorge it was there. A demure pile of pastry pillows dusted with sugar and a demitasse of custard.

What can anyone know or say definitively about a place as vast and inscrutable as New Orleans let alone after a mere three days of poking around? Probably not much, relatively speaking. The beignets and pot de creme at Coquette may or may not be the great confection of New Orleans, but it lives all the same as the great confection in my substantial memory. The custard was ghostly bodied, reminding me of the whimsical aphorisms that play out in the paintings of Rene Magritte, a cloud of curvaceous chocolate floating in mid-air. Something to laugh at as much as luxuriate over. The beignets, in contrast to the powdered sugar interred fritters at the famous Cafe du Monde, were as mystical as the custard--the crisp exterior protecting a humid, creamy interior that seems to finish baking only the moment it reached the tongue. For a city whose indelibly inchoate sensibility plays out inch upon delirious inch in architecture, sound, color, personalities and attitudes this plate of puffed dough and pudding got it about as succinctly right as I can imagine: An impossible little world disappearing as it achieves its fraught perfection.

Sharing some fresh air and a second round of dessert at Sucre on Magazine Street

A few doorsteps away on Magazine we managed to meet with the temptation of macarons and gelato at Sucre, beloved of Oprah and Paula. Already drunk and pooped on countless plates of amazing grub, did the only dignified thing we could, we gave in.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Baby please...

Failure anticipates the soul that believes in any gaping space that might--even might, cleave between tasting and remembering. I know that sounds forcefully Faulknerian (and keeping with consonance: fake). But I can't help it. It's Valentine's Day and I'm in the wrong part of the country to be properly enjoying it. Here in 36 degree Pittsburgh, PA it's raining cold aluminum foil and grievances.

Last week we had Brooke's Mom and Dad over for dinner. One of the myriad of amuse bouches and odd bites I quixotically planned but could not bring to the table was a chicken liver mousse. The livers soaked in milk for a few days before I finally stowed them away in the freezer between the marijuana butter and John's amazing chili. Sometimes the best laid plans are just over-planned.

This morning I woke up with a jones to do something for love day--even if beset by great distance from that love. It was time to make myself ridiculously happy--not that way...

Chicken liver is one of the most commonly disserviced bits of offal in today's kitchen. Even in this age of fetishistic bits and parts cooking chicken livers are still kinda viewed as Jewish grandma food. I'm sold. Soaking in milk overnight alleviates much of that brusque iron flavor, and pushes the silken texture even further. One is reticent to eroticize the cleansing organ of a bird, but reduced to mere adjectives, let's face it, it's kinda hard not to.

This dish captures the lonesomeness of Valentine's Day with good humor and bad funk. It is deeply satisfying, even if it leaves your breath and stamina in a state of such revolting muskiness and drowziness that any ill-advised hormonal charges to shoehorn bad love into this amorous day will be dutifully thwarted.

Put simply, you start your day with a plate of chicken livers and you ain't screwing anyone! And I'm not.

Enjoy this ostracizingly vulgar delicacy over a rerun of Law and Order, with a loyal dog who would never judge you anyhow. As I did.

Spaghetti Pepperoni with Sauteed Chicken Livers in White Balsamic Cream
(Feeds one sad sack)

1/2 lb. chicken livers, cleaned, soaked in milk at least 2 hours, preferably overnight
1 scant handful of wheat flour
1 tsp. tomato paste
1/4 tsp. minced garlic
2 tbsp. heavy cream
1 tsp. white balsamic vinegar
1/4 tsp. cracked black pepper
1 bunch pepper-dyed pasta
Fresh basil for garnish

Begin by boiling the pasta in heavily salted water.

In a saute pan add drained, flour-dredged livers and garlic with a generous splash of olive oil. As the livers brown add tomato paste, stirring to break up livers and push aromatic reach of the tomato and garlic.

Once the livers cook mostly through (filaments of blood will appear on their surfaces) and the rendered juices have tightened in unison with the tomato paste add vinegar and a splash of pasta water. Bring to a gentle boil, then add cream. Reduce the heat and allow the cream sauce to reduce to spoon-coating thickness.

Toss well-drained pasta in saute and add torn basil leaves to finish.

Play that Lauryn Hill tune. Again.

Monday, January 24, 2011


The live oak, Audubon Park, New Orleans, 64 degrees, January 2011

"I like very much people telling me about their childhood, but they'll have to be quick or else I'll be telling them about mine."
-Dylan Thomas, "Reminiscences of Childhood", 'Quite Early One Morning' (New Directions 1960)

It is reasonable among people who talk passionately about food to want to speak out and create their own versions of the classical--whether it's a Sunday red sauce, a favorite pizza shop in South Philly, or more broadly and ambitiously, a signature narrative of Provence. Travel writers and wayfaring chefs jump from one hot lily pad to the next getting stuffed with local eats, glad handing with with the demigods of the town. Blogs teem with similar--if humbler, versions of these stories. We have rapidly achieved that diminutive state long associated with poets: there are more of these rambling traveloguers than there are folks to read their exploits.

And yet...

I could waste a handsome bit of time digging out my own phantasmal history of New Orleans: Dreams of woozy predawn mornings sweating through white linen suits trying to pick up aging Faulknerian moderns; fantasies of being led by jacketed waiters to dimly lit antebellum dining rooms where the menus are the size of tombstones, and the diners are glistening mobsters who have nothing better to do than leisurely plan revenge killings over etouffee and crab gumbo, and where the oil portrait on the wall of the milk-skinned debutante in velvet and pearls hangs solely to give patrons a visual image of the ghost overturning coffee cups and ruffling the skin on their necks with goosebumps.

Of course some of my preconceptions weren't so grandiose. I always wanted a real fried po' boy, oysters and beer, to hear rambunctious dixieland in the French Quarter, and get in a knife fight with a mustachioed pimp over the prostitute with whom I was hopelessly in love--a contest that could only end in the absurdity of friendship or death. I'm pleased to say the world I expected was as much as I expected as it was not.

Jacques-Imo's was one of the most ardently recommended stops in the city--for reasons both theatrical and thematic it was our first stop. The house struck an acrobat's balance of flavorful hometown grub and bombastic tourist-salving hospitality. If you place Jacques-Imo's in the once-in-a-great-while column it works best. The appetizers were Gibraltar-scale entities of dense creamy carbohydrates and steamy, running milkfat.

To cheat any one dish of its spectacular flavors would be a crime, all the same the sinful appeal of overindulgence quickly ran to the profane. The widely lauded shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake was an impressive savory reboot of the sweet classic. And full disclosure, coming as the first hot bites to so expediently hit our table, it was an enticing and colorful overture. Paired with the comparably substantial fried grits with tasso shrimp sauce the enigma of cheesecake quickly dimmed in caloric malaise; we had ordered additional courses and were already growing dizzy seeing our reflections in the stolid pools of the paprika-hued cream sauce still before us. All the fabled elements of the region's singular pantry were on hand: smoky tasso, creamy fried grits, alligator, blackened redfish, glorious catfish. Somehow in execution the decadence overtook the subtlety and spirituality of these things.

I wonder, too, if it wasn't the flashy disarray at Jacques-Imo's, the noisy intimacy, that didn't in some way encumber the experience. The walls were bunched with crooked-framed paintings of tilting French Quarter jazz clubs, and the canting horns-men on their stages. Feral purples and cultural cliches. No right angles. Behind the artworks and upon the tablecloths laid even more disorienting patterns and themes all suggesting an air of joyful chaos. Tables were scalloped, one upon the other, and the spiderweb of cross-cutting conversations was a hefty meal unto itself. If we had only closed our eyes, plugged our ears, and asked the kitchen to please hold the cream that sends so many hungry shutterbugs and daytripping gluttons into elated food comas it might have sustained a feast of that magnitude. We left dizzy, fat and inexplicably happy, though perhaps for reasons yet to come.

There is great purpose in the dizziness of New Orleans. It is an aesthetic tenet of the landscape, and a living exposition of how the city has evolved, devolved and survived. I quickly came to the realization that as much as I romanticized the ten-ton plate of New Orleans the reality would have to be something much more mundane.

You can find particle board-shuttered shacks alongside magnificent cotton candy colored city mansions. Umber cadavers of dormant banana trees ("those trees aren't dead", one woman corrected me while raking leaves, "they just want you to think they're dead") shed leviathan scales onto mint lawns. A pile of bmx bikes rises in the front yard of a blighted habitation--a crack house, a squat? But how to explain the burgeoning well-loved rose bushes at rich intervals across the property? It's as if there was a prehistoric consensus to abide in irregularity and counter-intuition--thereby assuring singular beauty and camouflaging the ages of distress and hardship.

St. James Cheese Company is not something you necessarily have to go to New Orleans to find. We're a spoiled global market--at this point you can buy Manchego at Wal-Mart. Yet it's a destination all the same. Their cases are piled with imaginative showings from Spain, France, Britain and Italy. Their American cheeses dote on the eccentric little guys, the craft producers with seldom heard-of varieties. As spreads go it's impressive but by no means unheard of. No, what made St. James such an essential stop was the curatorial finesse they showed us: Chalkboards hawked ploughman's lunches, salumi boards and other delirious offerings from their cases--a slab of Membrillo quince paste roughly the size and aspect of a '65 Lincoln Continental adressed my adoring senses with such proprietary force that I nearly ordered a Zamorano grilled cheese just to spread the amber confection on the crust in spite of the king's ransom of dairy I'd already binged.

Pain perdu with Zamorano custard, Iberico ham and radish sprouts with Turkish apricot chutney.

Initially we went for an old favorite of mine, the slender remains of a plump heel of La Delice du Bourgogne with crushed Marcona almonds and clover honey. To detract nothing from the cheesecake previously mentioned this a la carte concoction could easily be my favorite after dinner sweet. Sharing a slim pine plank with diaphanous feathers of Iberico ham, Paprika-colored Ibores and a magnificently silken duck pate there was a Wagnerian bombast of sensation that fostered the brimming delicacies without ever blurring their ethereal distinctions. We tried aged Gruyere, a pewter Cabrales so gloriously rancid it could strip the Christianity from a nun's clasping hands. In their cool alcove--a January that to my senses felt so much more like May, we caught an alerting nudge of the spring thaw in each of the senses.

I would go back for more of the ham and some Zamorano for our breakfast on my final day. I think I felt as miserably indulgent visiting them on that last stop as I did doing the dishes after we ate our gainly breakfast. There is a chromatic intelligence to the traces of rusty pork on a plate that tell you the magnitude of all that passed. History occurs in hiccups and glares.